Can Accreditation Support Equity-Focused Change?

Headlines on accreditation are often gloom and doom and conjure up images of a problem to be solved:

We find Merriam-Webster‘s definition of “problem” helpful in this moment: “an intricate unsettled question.” To us the unsettled question is, can accreditors be part of the solution and bring their tremendous influence to bear on some of the intractable, systemic issues facing higher education today?

To begin to answer that question, our philanthropies—Ascendium and ECMC Foundation—have teamed up to support a partnership between the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) and Sova to the intersections between explore accreditation and transfer and credit mobility. The investment is designed to engage four diverse, WSCUC-accredited institutions (including a large flagship, two regional publics and a small private) to better understand the progress, barriers and opportunities institutions face as they seek to improve outcomes and close equity gaps for transfer students, and to then inform the work of the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board based upon what they learned together.

Each of our organizations—and each of us personally—believes that we cannot achieve equity in postsecondary outcomes if we don’t focus on improved transfer and credit mobility. The wide discrepancy between the number of students who enroll in college and those who ultimately receive their degree or credential indicates that the system has an unjust design. The point when a learner wants to move or transfer their earned credit, or receive credit for previous learning and work, is one of the leakiest and most unjust aspects of the system. The detrimental impacts of this unjust design affect different student groups in disparate ways, and the data make clear that the highest barriers to success are faced by Black, Latino and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds. We call your attention, for example, to the obstacles put in front of men of color. Although 62 percent of men of color enroll in a community college after high school graduation, only 25 percent of men of color earn an associate degree within three years of their enrollment in community colleges. Men of color hold high aspirations to earn a baccalaureate degree but far too few students get near the transfer gate.

Working with accreditors to advance systemic, equity-driven change is a new space for both of our philanthropies, but we have jumped in enthusiastically with eyes wide open for a few important reasons:

  • First and foremost, both of our philanthropies aim for systemic change, and believe that multiple cross-cutting levers are required to move toward systemic change. We know there is no simple answer, and so we are seeding change in areas including institutional policy, faculty practice, financial and regulatory incentives, system capacity, industry innovation—and now, accreditor influence.
  • We also know that real change takes time. None of us should labor under the belief that the total transformation of inequitable systems of education will be completed in the short term, perhaps even in our lifetime. But we know that new systems can be imagined and old systems can be transformed; large scale change begins with small steps. We are looking for opportunities to develop valuable connections between often disparate components of credit mobility, like faculty engagement, policy implementation, technological tools and, yes, even accreditation, which, if more intentionally integrated, may offer a path toward reducing and one day elimination unjust disparities in learner and credit mobility.
  • Additionally, while we have just begun to explore the capacity of accreditors to drive change in the transfer and credit mobility ecosystem, we don’t doubt their influence. Accreditors hold standards of both policy and practice that inform the ways in which institutions of higher education assess student learning and performance indicators. Investigating the extent to which the accreditation process has an explicit focus on equity and transfer student success opens a new window of opportunity. Institutions must be accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education to be allowed access to the billions of dollars appropriate for federal student aid (Title IV of the Higher Education Act). This amount of money can have transformative effects to positively impact students’ ability to receive a certificate or degree from a postsecondary institution.
  • Finally, WSCUC and Sova came to us and asked to be engaged. WSCUC has shown tremendous spirit, and as WSCUC president Jamienne Studley highlighted earlier this year in her piece “Who Knew? 5 Surprises About Accreditation,” accreditation agencies are stepping up their game in an evolving higher education landscape, and she shared evidence of important ways WSCUC is working on equity already. If accreditation is “an intricate unsettled question,” we have to be honest with ourselves that we haven’t really explored it, and so we welcomed the opportunity to work with a forward-thinking accreditor. In unpacking the question of accreditation’s relationship to equity and outcomes, we owe it to accreditors like WSCUC to invite their collaboration and support their learning.

Previously published here in the “Beyond Transfer” blog, experts on transfer Maria Hesse and Shirleatha Lee outlined the case for accreditation as a key lever for change. Studley similarly shared these reflections:

Institutions set transfer policy. Accreditors can drive awareness and change around transfer using strong tools of data disaggregation and analysis, peer review and benchmarking, and deep inquiry: who succeeds? What barriers inhibit, and what practices accelerate, equitable success? We’re excited about using transfer success as an equity laboratory and providing ground for deeply interrogating policy, practice, and results.

We are complemented by the opportunity to explore to what extent the accreditation process is in fact untapped potential for influencing transfer policy and holds practice at the institutional level, as well as what implications there may be for accreditation practice and equity. In the field of postsecondary education reform—which is by definition academic and highly researched—it is exciting to explore a question that seems to be (as yet) unanswered, perhaps even previously unasked. Pulling back the curtain on how accreditors can support transfer reform is an innovative exploration we’re eager to learn from.

Carolynn Lee is a senior program officer at Ascendium, and Saúl Valdez is a program officer at ECMC Foundation.

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